> Franco “Bifo” Berardi “The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance” Suiseisha 2023.8.25

Franco “Bifo” Berardi
“The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance”

Written by Hanako Murakami|2024.3.19


Poetry, Finance, and a Union


Last year, together with fellow artists, I founded a labor union for Japanese artists called Artists’ Union Japan. However, I felt that I hadn’t been able to sufficiently articulate the reasons for establishing a union at this time. Of course, our main motivation was the poor working environment that artists face; the fact that the basic rights of workers, i.e., the right to be paid for work, the right to receive compensation in the event of a work-related accident, and the right to work in an environment free of harassment, are not guaranteed in Japan today. But why had the formation of an artists’ union—something that was achieved half a century ago in France, where I am based—been gaining momentum in Japan? Relatedly, we are currently seeing a worldwide upturn in the unionization of artists in particular and labor movements led by artists in general. In other words, “uprisings” in various forms are taking place, but why? I think the book I’ve reviewed below offers some clues as to the answer—clues that I’d like to share here.


Being titled “The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance,” the book begins by retracing parallel histories between poetry and finance, and by considering the world of language and the world of money as analogous, in order to discuss said “uprising.” It posits poetry as “the excess of language” and finance as “the most abstract level of economic symbolization,” but how are the two connected?

A state in which words and their referents have one-to-one correspondence, that is, where specific words point to specific things in the physical world, is called “indexicality.” Similarly, in the world of money, currency can be exchanged for a certain quantity of physical goods. This can also be called “indexicality.”

It’s easy to understand a world in which all words, things, and money correspond neatly to something else, but the world we live in today is not that simple. The state in which words and things no longer correspond to one another, or the “loss of indexicality,” was the very result of the poetic explorations of the twentieth century. The author theorizes that the experiments of Rimbaud and other French or Russian symbolist poets, which severed the one-to-one connection between words and their referents, foretold the collapse of the correspondence between money and matter that occurs when the economy is financialized.

The author expands on this by discussing two algorithms at work in internet search engines’ process of indexing languages. In a Google search instance, the first algorithm finds the various occurrences of a word, while the second links the results to a monetary value (in the manner of an ad agency or an Amazon affiliate). The accumulation of wealth through the conversion of word meanings into monetary value via internet algorithms is, as a natural consequence, inextricably linked to the concentration of power and even political decision-making. This book was written in 2011, after which the concentration of information in the hands of giant tech companies has only accelerated, global disparities of wealth have reached unprecedented levels in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and AI has invaded our daily lives to gather ever-growing amounts of personal information. These developments appear to be not only an extension of the trends predicted in this book, but a more extreme version of them. In short, poetry and finance form the core of a highly topical issue.


That brings us to “the uprising.” As neoliberal reforms have irregularized employment, the result has been a vast number of deterritorialized workers unprotected by labor unions. The inevitable consequence is a widening gap between rich and poor, a state in which the social security system, established to reduce inequalities, has run out of steam—and ultimately a state of “uprising,” in which the have-nots stand up to demand justice. The author posits 2011 as the first year of the uprising, citing strikes and the Occupy movement in the United States, the Greek crisis, the Spanish acampada, and demonstrations in London and Rome as concrete examples.

How, then, to find hope in a world that is becoming dominated by a kind of colonialism, created by an unholy alliance of financial capitalism and digital innovation; a world in which, no matter how hard you work, there’s no way out of poverty?


The author cites an interesting survey result. When young Germans were asked what they want to be when they grow up, a quarter of respondents said they wanted to be artists. The author, “Bifo,” comments, “I think that they are saying that they want to be artists because they feel that being an artist means to escape a future of sadness, to escape a future of precariousness as sadness. They are thinking, well, precariousness and sadness can become something different, something not so sad, not so precarious, if they withdraw their faith, if they withdraw from any expectations a capitalist future offer.”*

In other words, the author thinks living as an artist can be a way to live free from the quantifiable, physical world, in a place beyond the world dominated by financial capitalism, where money begets money.


Here, I’d like to digress and take a look back at the author himself, Franco “Bifo” Berardi. This Italian philosopher’s nickname is the code name he used during his days as an activist in the Italian leftist movement. He still cherishes the name to preserve his memory of that time, including his detention and eventual release by the authorities.

“Bifo” is known in the art world largely because of his role in the anti-Semitic uproar at Documenta in 2017. The details are provided in translator Atsushi Sugita’s afterword, but to give a brief recap, anti-Semitic groups denounced an event organized by Bifo at Documenta, which is held once every five years and often deals with political themes, with Bifo’s response also becoming a topic of controversy.


Let me return to the earlier discussion of the analogy between the world of language and that of money. The author points out that like the symbolist poetry of the twentieth century that acted to trigger the separation of words from their referents, the event that can be said to have led money and matter to part company was the so-called Nixon shock, or the U.S. policies that broke the Bretton Woods system, under which the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency was convertible to gold at a fixed exchange rate. The collapse of this system, a gold standard of sorts, freed the value of money from the confines of an actual precious metal, gold, and paved the way for the semiotic financial economy.

If there’s an analogy to this phenomenon in the field of art, it would be the emergence of the “readymade.” By placing a commercially manufactured urinal in the context of an exhibition, Duchamp separated the object from its intended function and meaning, turning it into a work of art. So dawned an age in which not only one-of-a-kind pieces created by an artist with his own hands, but also mass-produced, “readymade” items, can be works of art. This marked the birth of contemporary art and signaled a way forward for works of art to be treated as financial commodities.


What the aforementioned German youths envision an “artist” to be is not clear, but they are greatly mistaken if they think becoming one will liberate them from global financial capitalism. That’s because art is ever more likely to become entangled in global financial capitalism. Works of contemporary art are commodities with the potential to suddenly skyrocket in price, making them prime targets for speculative investment.

The flip side of this is that artists whose work doesn’t immediately become subject to speculation are pressured to exhibit their works for free or at unreasonably low prices, using as collateral the uncertain promise of potential future profits. Therefore, in order to make a living, many artists are forced to engage in irregular employment and, as a result, live as low-wage workers.


The author also discusses the non-substantive character of global financial capitalism. In his view, the system’s defining characteristic is that it presents no enemies and nobody to negotiate with, being impossible to reduce to any particular individual or institution. With regard to an uprising against such an insubstantial subject, the author speaks of the power of poetry. He calls on us to discover the potential of poetry, the excess of language, which possesses the same fundamental emancipatory qualities, as a means of countering neoliberal global financial capitalism. Poetry is what reinvigorates the social body undermined by predatory global financial capitalism.

As for the “uprising” itself, while the author suggests that its emergence as a violent phenomenon is hardly surprising given how long the financial dictatorship has oppressed the social body, he also asserts that this is ill-advised. The uprising is a form of healing, not a form of judgment, for the pathology of the social body. Moreover, its healing effects, the author argues, are intensified when solidarity resurfaces in everyday life. Poetry and solidarity are the uprising against financial capitalism.


“The Uprising.” What meaning this will have in the world of art, and in Japan, is the question we must pose right now.


 *Citation from “The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance,” Chapter 1: The European Collapse, Section 2: The Power of Imagination and the European Collapse. Page 43.


Translated by Ilmari Saarinen


"The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance"

Author: Franco “Bifo” Berardi
Translated by: Sugita Atsushi
Published by: Suiseisha
Date of publication: 2023.8.25


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村上華子 Hanako Murakami

Hanako Murakami is an artist. After completing her studies at the University of Tokyo and the Graduate School of Film and New Media at Tokyo University of the Arts, she moved to Paris in 2013 as an overseas grantee from the Pola Art Foundation. After a post master course at the French National Contemporary Art Studio and an artist in residency through the Agency for Cultural Affairs (USA), she is currently based in Paris. She was nominated for the Arles International Photography Festival Newcomer award in 2019, and her recent works are in the collection of CNAP (France National Center for Fine Arts). Recent major solo exhibitions include “du désir de voir: The Birth of Photography” (Pola Museum of Art, 2022), “Imaginary Landscapes” (Taka Ishii Gallery, 2022), and “Criterium 96 Hanako Murakami” (Contemporary Art Tower, Art Tower Mito) Gallery, 2019) etc. https://www.hanakomurakami.net/

Photo by Nobuhiro Shimura